Prophecy has two duties: it must imagine the future and it must offer a choice, the warning contingent on human moral agency. In this world, and at this time, the duty of prophecy is not theoretical, for humanity faces a stark reality, one that is already beginning to unfold. Climate change threatens the world of stability that undergirds all institutions, all texts, and all practices. While a drastically changed climate is a new challenge in science and policy, the drama of drought and refugees is not a new problem in religious texts or traditions. The biblical account of creation sends humans into a chancy world; the famines that drive the biblical narrative send populations sweeping across the Middle East, in a land promised, but fragile. As our world begins to shift under the burden of a dramatically warming climate, it is the duty of prophecy – to imagine and to warn – that animates both science and theology.
On October 25, the Boisi Center hosted Laurie Zoloth, Charles McCormick Deering Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University, for the 16th Annual Prophetic Voices Lecture. During her talk entitled, “An Ethics for the Coming Storm: A Theological Reflection on Climate Change,” Zoloth issued a prophetic call to action and called for climate change to be addressed.
Zoloth shared reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other institutions to establish the urgency of the problem. She laid out the potential consequences humanity faces if it remains on its environmentally destructive course. She spoke of the international and intergenerational ethical dilemmas surrounding climate change, and how certain staples of capitalism and American life are responsible for the unfolding disaster.
She called upon the BC audience to “interrupt” their lifestyles—to challenge their complacency and comfort, and address the issues that are difficult but important to confront. With her ethics of interruption, Zoloth forcefully made the case that climate change requires making intentional choices that may cause discomfort or require sacrifice. The industrialized first world lifestyle imperils future generations and the poor, who are disproportionately in the crosshairs of climate change.
Using the Hebrew prayer, the shema from Deuteronomy 11, Zoloth invited her audience to think about the covenantal relationship of humanity and God found there, and the importance of that covenant on the environment.
Zoloth cited multiple scriptures from the Abrahamic faiths because “climate change undergirds all institutions and texts.” She argued that interruption, and ethics of hospitality, can lead to reconsideration and action on the individual level: unthinking consumption and materialism (less travel, a vegetarian diet, or refraining from purchasing or using packaged plastic goods), entering the polis (speaking on the issue by voting or civil protest), and really believing in what religion teaches (considering environmental stewardship a fundamental religious obligation).
Zoloth invoked the biblical and koranic narrative of the flood in Genesis to provide a metaphor for how unchanged behavior, ignorance, and destructive lifestyles can lead to catastrophe of biblical proportions. However, Zoloth concluded her lecture on an optimistic note regarding human agency, insisting: “Do not think for a minute that we are powerless.”
Zoloth, Laurie. “Making a Place: Jewish Views on Climate and Crisis, “ in Nature as a Force, edited by James Keenen, Georgetown, 2015
McKenna, Josephine. "Pope Francis says destroying the environment is a sin," Guardian, Sep. 1, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/01/pope-francis-calls-on-christians-to-embrace-green-agenda
Oppenheimer, Mark. “Setting Aside a Scholar Get-Together, for the Planet’s Sake,” New York Times, Dec. 5, 2014. permalink
“A Conversation with the President,” American Academy of Religion. https://www.aarweb.org/publications/rsn-may-2014-a-conversation-with-the-president
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